"No," Arthur said flatly, balancing a pile of books against his chest as they walked out of English. "I cannot imagine anything I would less like to do than go on a Valentine's date with you."
"What?" Alfred protested. "But – but we went to dinner! You said you liked it! You said we should do it again!"
"Not on Valentine's!" Arthur snapped. "Everything's all disgustingly pink and sweet and heart-shaped and commercial and—"
"—romantic," Alfred said. "And there's chocolate everywhere!" Arthur sometimes baffled him, but never more than at this moment, standing there in his school blazer and tailored pants and talking about candy and romance like it was a bad thing.
"It's tacky," Arthur said. They'd stopped outside the clubhouse, Arthur leaning against the door frame and rearranging his Shakespeare plays. His well-thumbed copy of Macbeth dropped to the floor. "I'm not going."
"Come on," Alfred said, picking it up for him. "You've never tried it! I know this place—"
"No," Arthur said. "Not with everyone else around talking about us. Now go away," he added. "I need to clean up the pentagram in the magic club room, since the principal's apparently too bloody scared to allow legitimate demoniac research."
If Alfred stopped to address the demon issue every time Arthur announced he was trying to summon one, their conversations would never get anywhere. "It's a tiny restaurant," Alfred said, ignoring that. "Nobody we know from school will be there. If you just tried—"
Arthur sneered. "It would take dark sorcery to get me out in a couple on Valentine's, Jones," he said. "Try me again at Halloween."
Alfred paused. From anyone else that might be exaggeration, but this was Arthur. He didn't give much thought to whether what he was about to say was wise or not. "All right," he said. "What kind of dark sorcery?"
Arthur stared at him. "You don't believe in magic."
"I can totally believe in magic," Alfred said. "I could believe the reincarnation of Abraham Lincoln was living in the groundskeeper's shed if he'd help me get a Valentine's date with you."
"You need the skull intact for reanimation," Arthur said absent-mindedly, but he was giving Alfred a considering look.
"Well," Alfred said, straightening his shoulders and trying to look like someone who could totally manage world-shattering dark sorcery and incidentally get a Valentine's date with his sort-of-but-not-fully-declared boyfriend, "what kind of spell do I need?"
"I'll leave instructions in your locker," Arthur said. There was a wicked smile tugging at the corner of his mouth. "Follow them to the letter, and maybe I'll go on this date with you."
Alfred frowned at his shopping list. "Fillet of a fenny snake," he muttered. The corner supermarket was noticeably short on snakes. He'd been through the meat section twice, but the best he could come up with was a chicken neck. That didn't seem right – that wasn't even a reptile. He'd probably get kicked out of the association of Dark Wizards before he'd even got started.
"'scuse me," he said to the woman at the till. "I'm looking for snakes."
"Jelly snakes?" the woman said. "Behind you. In the pick-n'-mix."
Alfred brightened up as he saw the wicked little heads poking out of their plastic container. "Yeah, that's great," he said, and grabbed a handful of the green ones.
"Hemlock?" the assistant at the Garden Center said. "Are you sure?"
"Just the root," Alfred said.
"We don't get much call for it," the assistant said dubiously. "You do know it's classified as an invasive plant? A weed," he clarified at Alfred's cheerfully blank look.
"Oh," Alfred said, slightly disappointed, because invasive sounded much more awesome than that. "You mean you don't have any? I'll pay."
The assistant looked taken aback. "I suppose there might be some in the hedgerows that we haven't got around to weeding out yet."
"Do me a favor and have a look," Alfred said. "My boyfriend told me to get it." He grinned. "February the fourteenth coming up!"
The assistant started to give him a comradely grin, but then hesitated, his expression turning dubious. "Your boyfriend – er – he's not planning to kill anyone, is he?"
"No, he's not that sort," Alfred said. "He's more the cursing type."
"Oh, um, well," the assistant said. "I'll just have a look." He backed out quickly, had a whispered conversation with the manager, and came back with an uprooted plant about a meter tall with tiny white flowers. "It's legal, but you do know that every part of it's poisonous?" he cautioned.
"I'm not planning to eat it," Alfred said. "I hope," he added under his breath, and followed the assistant to the till.
"Brinded," Alfred said firmly. He wasn't entirely sure what the word meant, but he was pretty sure it wasn't 'ginger'. "Not this one."
The kitten sitting on his foot gave an accusatory mew.
"Sorry," Alfred said, trying resolutely not to look at it. He was awful at resisting animals who wanted to be taken home with you, which was why they had three spoiled cats and a dog at home who all jumped on him during the holidays.
"What's this brinded?" said the pet shop owner. "That ain't a show color. I ain't even sure that's a real color. You having me on?"
"Oh, brindled," the teenage girl shopworker said suddenly. She straightened up from feeding the rabbits. "You mean, like, gray with dark stripes."
"I do? I mean, yeah, I do!" Alfred said. The kitten was batting his ankle with its paws. He crouched down and petted it absently. "Got any?"
"No," the girl said. "We've got two Siamese littermates and a Birman, or a black tom if you're after a non-pedigree. And Mischief here."
"Not at all?" Alfred said. "Are you the only pet shop in town?"
"Yeah, unless you're up for an hour's drive north," the man behind the counter said.
"Raouw," the kitten said, making a spirited attempt to climb up Alfred's leg. "Wong!"
"Get out of that, you little bastard," Alfred said affectionately, putting a hand under the kitten's stomach and lifting it up to his shoulder. It jumped on to his head.
He realized belatedly that both of the pet shop workers were staring at him and the kitten.
"Rurrr," the kitten said smugly, and kneaded at his scalp with retracted claws.
"Uh," Alfred said. "How much for him?"
At the stroke of midnight, two days later, Alfred stood on the football pitch with the rising moon behind him and the dark whispers of a pitch-black wind around him. In front of him was the giant plastic tub the groundskeeper used for mixing up line-marking paint. Resting against it were three large bags that were the results of his three-day shopping spree.
The hardest thing on Arthur's shopping list had been the goat kid, now attached by a rope to the tub and contentedly munching grass. Alfred hoped it wouldn't take any interest in the rest of the ingredients, since he didn't want to return it to the farmer tomorrow saying it had eaten three jelly snakes and a fluffy tiger toy.
The second scrap of parchment he'd found in his locker had instructed 'bubbling' water, but Alfred couldn't see a way of making that happen, so he'd filled the tub with a hosepipe. A small ginger kitten curled up on his shoulder, watching the whole thing with interest.
"Right," Alfred muttered. "Let's see what this does." He lit three red candles and chanted the vaguely Latinate-sounding syllables that Arthur had written on the paper. When he'd finished, he stopped cautiously. It might have been his imagination, but he thought he could feel cold prickles creeping up his back. "Um," he said.
"Mror," Mischief said, and leaped off his shoulder and trotted into the dark behind him.
"That's not very reassuring," Alfred muttered. "Guess you saw a mouse or something."
He pulled the sacks towards him. Let's see. Armful of yew twigs, tooth of wolf – probably plaster – blood pudding pinched from the kitchens, which was the nearest he'd managed to get to baboon's blood. Hemlock. Fluffy tiger. Snakes. They all went into the pot. Next was a sack of black lambswool yarn, which Alfred considered pretty damn close to the 'bat's wool' on Arthur's list.
Next, eight massive cans of white paint. Alfred levered off the lids one by one with a screwdriver. They'd struck him as a bit, uh, not in tune with the rest of the list, but this was Arthur's dark sorcery dare and if Arthur wanted gallons of white paint in there then Arthur would get it.
Several items later, Alfred hit the difficult one. "Spit, darn you!" he said, his arms full of kicking goat kid. "Come on, this isn't hard! Goats spit all the time!"
"Meeeeergh," the goat said, and kicked him in the stomach. Alfred swore and dropped it. It bounded to the end of its leash and started chewing at one of the sacks.
Alfred peered in the white swirl of water. "Something must have gone in, right?" he muttered. His voice sounded too loud in the darkness. "And Mischief already yowled at it, so that's done."
The wind was picking up. Clouds scudded across the face of the moon, sending the world into shadow. Alfred turned on his flashlight again, cold pricking at his skin, and scrutinized the paper.
Just the last bit to go, to seal the spell. It was stupid to feel like this was something to be scared of. What could it do – set forth all the demons of hell?
Alfred immediately wished he hadn't thought of that. He wasn't superstitious, but mainly he wasn't superstitious in daylight.
This was stupid. He cleared his throat, tried to ignore the clenching in his stomach, and spoke the words.
"Now the charm is firm and good."
He waited, scarcely breathing. In the silence, there was a scratching noise from behind him. Something warm and wet pressed against his ankle and he nearly jumped out of his skin.
"Mrr?" Mischief said.
Alfred stood stock still for a moment and then crouched down with a shaky laugh. "Okay, you got me there," he said. "Nice one." He petted Mischief's head. "But looks like this thing isn't working, huh?" He squinted at the paper with the flashlight.
"Hey, wait," he said. "There's something on the other side."
"Woew," Mischief said. "Mrrr."
Alfred read it, blinked, and read it again. Then he burst out laughing. "Listen up, dude," he said to Mischief. "This is gonna be fun."
"Oi, Jones!" Antonio yelled, skidding down the corridor the next morning with one shoe untied and his shirt half-buttoned. "Have you seen the football pitch?"
The wake-up bell had gone twenty minutes ago. Alfred came out of the shower toweling his hair. "Huh?" he said innocently. "The pitch?"
"Come and look!" Antonio grabbed his wrist and pulled him to the end of the corridor, where half the boys in their dormitory were hanging out of the window, jostling for a good camera position and speculating wildly.
One the pitch, in letters two meters high, white paint spelled out:
THE PRINCIPAL IS A LILY-LIVERED POLTROON
And under it, in smaller letters that thinned out by the end as the paint ran short:
will u go out w me on 14th?
"Hey, whoah," Alfred said. "Wonder who that was?"
He didn't get much time to hear the others' guesses. A hand came out of the door next to them, clamped around his arm, and yanked him into Dorm C.
"You bloody idiot!" Arthur hissed. His mouth was twitching as if it was taking everything he had to keep from laughing. He was, Alfred noticed with delight, flushed red to the tips of his ears. "You weren't supposed to add that last bit!"
"Well, I had half a pot left over," Alfred said. "The last bit got kind of messy, the goat escaped."
"I can't believe you actually got a goat!"
"Uh, wait until you meet the cat," Alfred said. "I have to fill in a pet form and backdate it to like, yesterday. But, seriously, I think your spell's a dud," he added earnestly. "I did everything just as it said and nothing magic happened."
Arthur picked up a book from his bed and thumped him over the head with it. "Ow!" Alfred protested, rubbing the spot. Arthur brandished the book under his nose.
"Macbeth!" he said, half incredulous and half exasperated. "Do you never read our English set texts?"
"Not the moment they're set, no!" Alfred said, taking the book and leafing through it. Arthur stopped him on a page in Act 4. "Ooh," Alfred said. A grin spread across his face. "Well, how 'bout that."
"How do you pass your exams each year?" Arthur said.
"Natural genius," Alfred said. "Soooo, this evening? Meet you at seven?"
Arthur yanked the book back. "You will be wearing a suit and tie," he informed Alfred. "I prefer white roses to red."
Now who's romantic? Alfred didn't say, but it showed on the smile he couldn't stop.
They sat on a swing-seat in the night-time garden of the restaurant, both of them scraping the last of the cake from their shared plate with tiny, long-handled spoons. Fairy lights were wound around all the trees and bushes. Behind them, violin music filtered through the open glass doors. It wasn't warm, even for February, but their shoulders were pressed together. Arthur was wearing Alfred's fleece-lined jacket, and Alfred didn't think chilly spring evenings got much better than this.
"This is half-way acceptable, I suppose," Arthur said grudgingly.
Alfred grinned at him and turned so their faces were only inches from each other. "You're having a good time," he said. "Admit it."
Arthur kissed him, carefully and deliberately, and Alfred eagerly returned it. Arthur tasted like chocolate cake.
"All right," Arthur said in his ear. "But the Halloween date's mine, Jones."
A warm feeling of pleasant apprehension stirred Alfred's stomach. "Looking forward to it," he said, his voice low and intense, and kissed him back.
AN: Arthur's 'spell' is of course from the Witches' scene in Macbeth, Act 4 Scene 1: "Double, double toil and trouble".